Fantasy War is Hell

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I’ve noticed a trend recently for fantasy stories that explore just how awful war can be. From the gruelling swamp warfare of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn, to the monstrous horrors and civilian casualties of Attack on Titan, to the acts of brutality, cowardice and deception in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, fantasy creators are exploring the dark side of war.

It’s quite a contrast with traditional fantasy, in which there are clear good and evil sides, causes worth fighting and dying for, and warriors mostly experience courage, heroism and camaraderie. Tolkien’s war for Middle Earth this is not.

Like literary and historical fiction before it, fantasy fiction seems to have become more willing, even eager, to explore the dark side of warfare. It’s a trend I find pleasing, as I think it makes for more interesting stories and more realistic characters. But I wonder if it will last, or whether we’ll see a backlash and a return to the dominance of old-fashioned tales of war as a righteous endeavour.

I suppose only time will tell.

2 thoughts on “Fantasy War is Hell”

  1. It’s interesting to see this theme in different circumstances too – in Steph Swainston’s stories the war is hellish and brutal but also unavoidable- there can be no peace treaty with the Insects.

    My most recent audio reads have been Louis McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife stories, which are pretty much straight up romance in a fantasy setting. ( I was interested by how many of the negative reviews for them I have read were “I wanted to read a fantasy novel but this is mostly romance” – which is a classic online complaint “this wasn’t the thing I wanted to read so I’m giving it a bad review” regardless of any other qualities the story had. ) I enjoyed them, although not quite as intensely as her masterful Chalion stories, and one of the things I was strongly aware of was that these were stories about relationships and family that just happened to be happening in a world threatened by an intractable magical menace. In a way they represent something of the same form, to what you are talking about, of genre stories that use the opportunities of imaginative fiction but are more driven by character and detail than the genre mainstays of grand events and epic reach.

    1. It’s also interesting to consider how open different audiences are to the mixing up of genres, and of genre with certain themes and issues. I wonder if romance readers would have as much trouble with a strongly sci-fi romance as those readers did with a strongly romantic sci-fi? Or are they used to the fact that romance is often romance plus some other genre?

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